Top Engineers – Robert Ludwig

Van Morrison – His Band And Street Choir

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Reviews and Commentaries for Van Morrison

  • With Double Plus (A++) sound from first note to last, this is an outstanding Palm Tree pressing of Van’s shockingly underrated album from 1970 – fairly quiet vinyl too
  • The band is swinging, the material top-notch – “Domino,” “Crazy Face,” “Blue Money” and other classics are right here
  • The Best Sounding Van Morrison Album, a classic of 1970 Tubey Magical analog, and his only title to make our Top 100
  • “As ‘Domino’ opens the album with a show of strength, ‘Street Choir’ closes it with a burst of both musical and poetic energy which is not only better than anything else on the album but may well be one of Van’s two or three finest songs.” – Rolling Stone
  • For Rock and Pop 1970 Might Just Be the Best Year of Them All

This is the album that came out between Moondance (in the same year in fact, 1970) and Tupelo Honey, but for some reason, it don’t get no respect. We think that’s insane — the material on this album is stellar and the sound on the best pressings is out of this world!

Here’s a copy that really makes our case for us. Both sides of this vintage Warner Bros. pressing sound AMAZING! We went through a massive stack of copies and let me tell you — most of them sure don’t sound like this! Take this one home for some of the best Van Morrison sound you will ever hear.

For years I thought that Moondance was the best sounding album in the Van Morrison catalog. His Band And Street Choir is even better. One reason for that would have to be that Robert Ludwig mastered it, and he can usually be counted on to do an excellent job.

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AC/DC – Back In Black

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  • With excellent Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish, this Back In Black ROCKS like nothing you’ve heard
  • Both sides play with exceptionally (and unusually) quiet surfaces for a Robert Ludwig original
  • RL is the king on this title, which means the conventional wisdom is right for once!
  • It’s been years since we got hold of a copy that sounds this good and plays this quietly – it’s one of only a handful to hit the site with both sides graded Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus
  • Top 100, and if you turn it up good and loud, one of the biggest, boldest, hardest rockin’ records ever made
  • 5 stars: “… tawdry celebration of sex is what made AC/DC different from all other metal bands — there was no sword & sorcery, no darkness, just a rowdy party, and they never held a bigger, better party than they did on Back in Black.”
  • Robert Ludwig used humungous amounts of tube compression on Back in Black, and we’re glad he did. All that compression is at least partly responsible for it being a Rock Demo Disc of the highest order.

You probably never thought you’d ever use an AC/DC LP as a Demo Disc, but this copy will have you reconsidering that notion — it’s ALIVE with Rock and Roll Power Chords like nothing you have ever heard.

For Riff Rock you just can’t do much better than Back In Black. AMG gives it 5 Stars and rightfully so. Musically it’s got everything you’d want from this genre of heavy rock — a tight, punchy rhythm section; raging guitar riffs; and deliciously decadent lyrics screamed to perfection.

What took us by surprise was how amazing this music sounds on the right copy. You’ve probably heard these songs a million times, but we bet you haven’t heard them sound like this. This is the kind of record that you’ll want to keep turning up. The louder you play it, the better it gets — but only if you’ve got a pressing that rocks like this one.

The transparency and clarity are shocking — we heard texture on the guitars and room around the drums that simply weren’t to be found on most copies, plus tons of lovely analog reverb and natural studio ambience.

And of course the bottom end is big, beefy, and rock-solid, just the way we like it. I ask you, what album from 1980 sounds better than Back in Black?

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Donald Fagen / The Nightfly

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Steely Dan

  • With two outstanding sides, this early pressing is guaranteed to be a huge improvement over anything you’ve heard – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Punchy and high-resolution, check out the cymbals and muted guitar on “I.G.Y.” — they sound Right On The Money here
  • If you are looking for a shootout winning copy, let us know – with such good music and sound, we hope to get another shootout going again soon
  • 4 1/2 stars: “A portrait of the artist as a young man, The Nightfly is a wonderfully evocative reminiscence of Kennedy-era American life; in the liner notes, Donald Fagen describes the songs as representative of the kinds of fantasies he entertained as an adolescent during the late ’50s/early ’60s, and he conveys the tenor of the times with some of his most personal and least obtuse material to date.”

Vintage covers for this album are hard to find in exceptionally clean shape. Most of the will have at least some amount of ringwear, seam wear and edge wear. We guarantee that the cover we supply with this Hot Stamper is at least VG


Energetic and present, this copy is on a completely different level than most pressings. We just finished a big shootout for Donald Fagen’s solo effort from 1982 (just two years after Gaucho and the end of Steely Dan) and we gotta tell you, there are a lot of weak-sounding copies out there. We should know; we played them.

We’ve been picking copies up for more than a year in the hopes that we’d have some killer Hot Stamper copies to offer, but most of them left us cold. Flat, edgy and bright, like a bad copy of Graceland, only a fraction had the kind of magic we find on the better Steely Dan albums.

Both sides here are incredibly clear and high-rez compared to most pressings, with none of the veiled, smeary quality we hear so often. The vocals are breathy, the bass is clear and the whole thing is open and spacious.

How Analog Is It?

The ones we like the best will tend to be the ones that sound the most Analog. The more they sound like the average pressing — in other words, the more CD-like they sound — the lower the sonic grade. Many will not have even one Hot Stamper side and will end up in the trade-in pile.

The best copies sound the way the best copies of most Classic Rock records sound: tonally correct, rich, clear, sweet, smooth, open, present, lively, big, spacious, Tubey Magical, with breathy vocals and little to no spit, grit, grain or grunge.

That’s the sound of analog, and the best copies of The Nightfly have that sound.

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Liszt, Ludwig, Grundman and Sax

Liszt & Weber / Ballade No. 2, Mephisto Waltz / Bar-Illan

The Liszt side here actually has the best sound, earning a seriously good grade of A++ to A+++.

This is one of the few audiophile-label recordings I have ever played that actually sounds NATURAL and CORRECT. This is a very real sounding piano; there are not many recordings that can capture that instrument’s weight, but this one sure does.

Side One

A++ sound, very open and real. This is a big piano with a solid bottom end playing in a big room. A trace of smear on the transients keeps it from the full Three Plus grade.

Side Two

A++ to A+++, less smeary so we raised the grade a bit. The music is dark and somewhat “out there” but the sound is AMAZING. 

A top quality solo piano recording from an “audiophile” label? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard it for myself.

That’s not really being fair, though. Some of us remember that Robert Ludwig cut another “audiophile” pressing, this one for Athena, and did a great job on it. (The other four records Athena released before they went out of business were awful, including the one mastered by Doug Sax.)

I suspect that if Ludwig hadn’t stopped cutting records years ago, we would not be complaining nearly as much as we do about the sound of the modern Heavy Vinyl pressings currently inundating the market.

Bernie and Doug really started letting the record lovers of the world down beginning as far back as the ’90s.

The muddy messes Doug Sax cut for Analogue Productions and the awful Living Stereo records Bernie cut for Classic Records were sad chapters in both men’s body of work. Here were two of the All Time Greats. Their fall was precipitous and painful for those of us who never gave up on analog. In those dark days they mastered one record after another so unlike the amazing sounding ones they had made in the ’70s and well into the ’80s.

We have nothing personal against either one of them, of course. We just haven’t liked the sound of very many of the records they’ve mastered for the last thirty years, and we have never been shy about saying so.

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Letter of the Week – “Just curious as to why you never point out a Bob Ludwig “RL” pressing?”

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

Hey Tom, 

I am an avid vinyl cat and have been all of my life. I am super curious about your vinyl. I have a pretty good ear myself for top-shelf LP’s but I am just curious as to why you never point out a Bob Ludwig “RL” pressing? Or maybe you have and I just have not noticed?

Thanks so much for a response and much respect for what you are doing and selling…

Dana

Dana, we explained it here, in a little commentary we like to call The Book of Hot Stampers.

We give out little in the way of stamper numbers, no information about cutting engineers as a rule, although we do break that rule from time to time. Here is an excerpt of a listing for Rock of Ages from way back when:

What We Thought We Knew

In 2006 we put up a copy with with what we implied were Hot Stampers (before we were using the term consistently) on at least one side:

Side One sounds tonally right on the money! This is as good as it gets… Robert Ludwig mastered all of the originals of these albums, but some of them have bad vinyl and don’t sound correct.

I only played side one of the album, so I can’t speak for the other sides, but what I heard was sound about as good as I think this album can have.

There are some truths along with some half-truths in the above comments, and let’s just say we would be quite a bit more careful in our language were we writing about that copy today.

One side is no indication whatsoever as to the quality of the other three, and without the kind of cleaning technologies we have available to us today, I wouldn’t want to make a “definitive” sonic assessment for any of them.

When you play uncleaned or poorly cleaned records you’re hearing a lot of garbage that has nothing to do with the sound of the actual vinyl. (Note that we are joking above: there is no such thing as a definitive sonic assessment of a record, from us or anybody else.)

Ludwig cut many bad sounding records. Roxy Music Avalon original domestic pressings are RL. They’re made from dubs and sound like it.  Same with Dire Straits’ Alchemy.

Some RL Houses of the Holy sound amazing and some only decent. It’s the nature of the beast. (more…)

Dire Straits – How Good Are the Robert Ludwig Pressings?

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The best domestic pressings we heard, the ones cut by Robert Ludwig at Masterdisk, were simply not competitive with any of the early British LPs.

The evidence is pretty clear that the master tapes stayed in England and that only the British pressings are made from them.

If you’ve played as many records as we have, it’s not hard to recognize dubby sound when you hear it.

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Led Zeppelin / II – Gee, I Seem to Have No Trouble At All Playing This Record

tablewithzep2sMore of the Music of Led Zeppelin

Reviews and Commentaries for Led Zeppelin II

Reviews and Commentaries for Albums Mastered by Robert Ludwig

I expect that pretty much everyone knows the famous story by now.

Robert Ludwig’s “Hot Mix” (a complete misnomer, mostly propagated by those with a poor understanding of what is involved in making records – the mix never changed, only the mastering) of Zep II was causing the needle to jump the groove when Ahmet Ertegun’s daughter tried to play it on her cheap turntable, so they recut the record with more compression and cut the bass. (The recut, if you have never heard one, may take the cake for the worst sounding pressing of the album ever made.)

Our Triplanar Mark 6 / Dynavector 17dx combination seems to play the original just fine. Amazingly well in fact.

Here’s a challenge for all the Heavy Vinyl fans in the world: name all the Heavy Vinyl records that sound as good or better than RL’s cutting of Zep II.

Modern engineers tell us they can cut records better now than ever before, with all the bass and dynamics that previous engineers were supposedly forced to limit for the cheap tables and carts of the past.

So where are these so-called New and Improved records, the ones with better bass and dynamics?

I have yet to hear one. Perhaps someone can point me in the right direction.

Send your list to tom@better-records.com

[This commentary has been up for many years and we have yet to hear of a single example. Which is exactly what we would have expected, because there is almost no chance that any such records exist., regardless of what you may have read elsewhere.]

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Bryan Ferry / Boys And Girls – Two Tracks Are Key

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The song Valentine, the second track on side two, is a key test for that side. Note how processed Ferry’s vocals are. On even the best copies they will sound somewhat bright. The test is the background singers: they should sound tonally correct and silky sweet.

If Ferry sounds correct, they will sound dull, and so will the rest of the side. That processed sound on his vocal is on the tape. Trying to “fix” it will ruin everything.

You can be pretty sure that whatever Heavy Vinyl pressing has been made for this album that they tried to fix the hell out of it. Doubtless the result is not a pretty one. It rarely is.

On the top copies the lead on the very next track, Stone Woman, is tonally right on the money.

These two tracks, two of the best on the album, together make it easy to know if your copy is correct in the midrange.

Track two: background vocals.

Track three: lead vocal.

What could be easier?

Key Listening Test for Both Sides

The quality of the percussion is critical to much of the music here. There’s tons of it on Boys and Girls, even more than on its predecessor Avalon, and unless you have plenty of top end, presence and transparency, all that percussion can’t work its magic to drive this rhythmic music.

How About the British Pressings?

Bryan Ferry is British, as is bandmate David Gilmour and the recording and producing team headed by the amazing Rhett Davies. And yes, the recording was done at many studios, most of them overseas.

But the album is mixed by Bob Clearmountain at The Power Station and mastered by Robert Ludwig at Masterdisk, and that means the master tape was right here in America when it came time to get the sound of the tape onto vinyl.

The British pressings are made from dubs and sound like it.

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Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy

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More Top 100 Titles

  • Wall to wall, floor to ceiling Led Zeppelin power – this copy delivers like you will not believe, or your money back
  • A Better Records Top 100 album (along with 4 other Zep titles), 5 Stars in AMG and a True Zeppelin Must Own Classic
  • The Tubey Magical acoustic guitars heard here should be a wake up call to every audiophile that trying to remaster this album is just not in the cards
  • 5 stars: “Jimmy Page’s riffs rely on ringing, folky hooks as much as they do on thundering blues-rock, giving the album a lighter, more open atmosphere…”
  • If you’re a fan of the band, this title from 1973 is clearly one of their best, and inarguably one of their best sounding
  • The complete list of titles from 1973 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

This copy has the kind of BIG, BOLD ROCK SOUND that takes this music to places you’ve only dreamed it could go. The HUGE drums on this copy are going to blow your mind — and probably your neighbors’ minds as well.

And what would a Zep record be without bass? Not much, yet this is precisely the area where so many copies fail. Not so here. The bottom end is big and meaty with superb definition, allowing the record to ROCK, just the way you know Zep wanted it to.

The vocals too are tonally correct. None of the phony upper-midrange boost that the Classic Records reissue suffers from is evident on this copy. The louder Robert Plant screams the better he sounds and the more I like it. The Classic makes me wince. (more…)

The Band / Rock Of Ages – A Definitive Sonic Assessment?

More of the Music of The Band

More Hot Stamper Pressings of Roots Rock Albums

In 2006 we put up a copy with with what we implied were Hot Stampers (before we were using the term regularly) on at least one side:

“Side One sounds tonally right on the money! This is as good as it gets… Robert Ludwig mastered all of the originals of these albums, but some of them have bad vinyl and don’t sound correct.

“I only played side one of the album, so I can’t speak for the other sides, but what I heard was sound about as good as I think this album can have.”

There are some truths along with some half-truths in the above comments, and let’s just say we would be quite a bit more careful in our language were we writing about that copy today.

One side is no indication whatsoever as to the quality of the other three, and without the kind of cleaning technologies we have available to us today, I wouldn’t want to make a “definitive” sonic assessment for any of them.

When you play uncleaned or poorly cleaned records, you’re hearing a lot of garbage that has nothing to do with the sound of the vinyl itself.

Note that we are joking above: there is no such thing as a definitive sonic assessment of a record, from us or anybody else.

Bad Audiophile Thinking? We’ve done our share and then some.

We are firm believers in the idea that plenty of Audio Progress awaits you, but you must approach the problem rationally and put the necessary time and effort into it.

It is axiomatic with us that the more skeptical you become, the more successful you will be in pursuing this hobby of ours.

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